Winslet Goes Round and Round In Stilted 'Wonder Wheel'

Directed by: Woody Allen; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: D

Making movies since the mid-'60s, Woody Allen has released a theatrical feature every single year since 1982, and the diversity of his constant output of work -- spanning from gleefully satirical comedies to dark social thrillers -- varies about as much as the quality of it all, with some deemed worthy of awards and others barely worth remembering. Naturally, this also leads to a cluster of films that exists somewhere in between, seeming like lesser versions or companion pieces to his better productions, some which build under-the-radar followings; the whimsy of Midnight in Paris swirls in the cheeky con-woman mystery of Magic in the Moonlight, the relationship tension of Match Point echoes in the lighter sleuthing caper Scoop, and so on. One could hope that Wonder Wheel might function as a fluffier Coney Island-themed return to some of Allen's prior ideas, from failing marriages and emotionally abusive husbands to secret relationships. Unfortunately, the vintage atmosphere and Kate Winslet's best efforts aren't enough to make this unmerry flop go ‘round.

Winslet plays Jenny, an ex-actress turned waitress at an oyster joint on the boardwalk in the 1950s. She's stuck in an unsatisfying marriage with a recovering -- and reluctant -- alcoholic, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who spends his days working a carousel and fishing with his buddies, all while trying to keep her pyromaniac young son from setting fires across the city. Her unhappiness grows further complicated upon the arrival of Humpty's daughter from a previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), who herself has fled from her gangster husband in hopes of starting over in Coney Island. Told from the perspective of a local playwright making ends meet as a lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), who also becomes entangled in their story, Wonder Wheel focuses on Jenny's shackled desire for something more out of her life … as well as the ways in which she pursues satisfaction elsewhere while coping with her problems at home.

Out of the gate, Justin Timberlake's lifeguard character announces that his retelling of the story at-hand will occasionally have moments of embellishment and melodrama befitting his writerly persona, and he isn't exaggerating. Under the vibrantly-hued, sun-drenched veneer of ‘50s Coney Island, Woody Allen telegraphs Wonder Wheel very much like a stage production, but one that's more interested in the theatricality of the period drama than conveying the sincerity of the characters' struggles. Proclamations about internal feelings are overly candid and specific in the vein of Allen's more verbose lyricisms, only in greater volume and weighed down by awkwardness in trying to fit with the era. Exposition suffers even more: so much of it centers on weathered people reminiscing about the experiences of their past and justifying how they reached the present circumstances, becoming repetitious with talks about Humpty's drinking and Carolina's future ambitions after her failed marriage to a known gangster. While it reads and sounds like Allen's work, it lacks the same kind of emotional nuance and resonance.

There's a saying about the movies that suggests a skilled director and the right actors can turn a lackluster screenplay into something worthwhile, but Wonder Wheel ends up being an example to the contrary. From Justin Timberlake's fourth-wall focused narration to Juno Temple's sympathetic songbird and Jim Belushi's oafish ex-drunkard, there's plenty of talent here that gets weighed down by Allen's dull rendering of archetypical characters, each of whom possess simple and recognizable histories in service of the broader story forming around Jenny. Kate Winslet comes close to salvaging depth from Allen's grand design: her character's frustrations with the status quo of her waitressing job, with her husband's attitude and estranged daughter, and with her burgeoning affair with another man add depth to her wistful recollections of her acting career. Even with Winslet's reliable solemn candidness working overtime, Jenny still doesn't come across as a completely genuine person, hampered by odd decisions and fumbling Allen's overly eccentric dialogue.

There are moments where Woody Allen's talent comes out of the woodwork for Wonder Wheel, such as when radiant sunlight pools on the characters mid-conversation or when the things that go unsaid in a phonecall have bigger implications than what's said, spotlighting complex emotion and tension. Ultimately, this is a portrait of Jenny's changeover from growing exasperation with her situation to intense paranoia and doubting of her self-worth, leaving none of the characters in a likable state by the time an abrupt and unsatisfyingly pessimistic ending twists them in traumatic directions. Woody Allen's efforts start to appear more focused on deliberately and systematically tormenting its oyster-serving heroine than exploring her strength as a woman being pulled in many directions by her obligations and emotions, and no amount of photogenic transportation to Coney Island's heyday can offset its lopsided misfortunes. Wonder Wheel ends up both light on substance and heavy in tone, serving up a subpar retread of ideas whose meager successes prop up Woody Allen's superior musings in prior films.

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